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Architects, designers consider impact of COVID-19 on buildings, people

1602-i033-005-f-m003-c8-shopping_mall_isometric-copyThe COVID-19 pandemic promises to change people’s lives in numerous ways. Architects and designers are already starting to consider what this will mean for new and existing buildings and their users. It’s partially an emergency response, partially an embrace of existing trends.

“I’ve been doing retail design for over 30 years, and I think right now part of what we’re seeing is a tactical response to triage,” said Terry Krause, a principal at Mackenzie. “We need to create a safe place for people to work and shop. It’s very tactical. It’s about what can we do right here and right now in the moment.”

Industry professionals know this is only part of the story. Yes, there is a strong need to revamp existing commercial spaces to make them usable in a new reality fraught with peril. But there is also an imperative to explore the growing impact of online commerce, building layout needs and even materials more amenable to a post-pandemic society.

“It certainly is open to question right now,” said Jesse Walt, a shareholder at YGH Architecture in Portland, Oregon. “There’s going to be a reaction to the current pandemic. It’s going to put a focus on adaptable spaces that can be modified to sort of adjust to whatever is needed. It’s going to be flexible spaces. It’s hard to define because it will be different for everyone.”

Public spaces that already are experiencing ad hoc design changes include, of course, grocery stores and retail businesses that are operating through the crisis. Then there are health care facilities, which, in Portland at least, are being fast-tracked through the city’s permitting process.

However, educational, office and public spaces also are expected to be subject to review so that occupants’ health is considered carefully.

“I think we’re going to see interesting creative solutions in the short term,” said Mark Perepelitza, a principal at SERA Architects in Portland. “Longer term, it just seems like the focus on health and well-being and the potential of this to occur will certainly be important in design.”

Krause has spent substantial time working with Kroger to update its ubiquitous Fred Meyer grocery stores. In addition to the arrival of safety-conscious elements such as one-way shopping aisle markers and plexiglass screens between clerks and customers, businesses may choose to begin offering greater use of self-checkout and cashier-less services, he said. The Amazon Go (no checkout) model and locker systems may become commonplace, he added.

Even ultraviolet light, which is used in health care for sterilization of instruments and surfaces, can easily be adapted for retail use.

“We may design it in so carts can go in under UV light,” Krause said. “It’s a cost-effective and fast disinfecting means. I think we can design in a solution that’s very simple and doesn’t cause waste. Most stores have a path for carts anyway.”

Other changes that could take place include: greater use of touchless appliances and fixtures, adoption of more easily cleanable materials in public areas, and reduction in use of porous materials (such as wood) that trap and retain microorganisms.

While these concepts may be affordable for large corporations and chains, they may not be for smaller mom-and-pop grocers and retail businesses.

“There’s no big conversation in the independent world of how it will impact store designs, but I think it will,” said Dan Phillips, managing partner with Food Market Designs, a family-run firm in Langley, Washington. “I was asked to do a health care facility – a testing facility that’s leased out to researchers. And it makes me think about – they need quarantine rooms, social distancing without barriers – and how are we ever going to do something like that in the grocery world? How is that ever going to be possible?”

It’s a financial conundrum for small businesses of all types.

“With these grocers, they don’t have a lot of money to spend on big renovations to fix what needs to be fixed,” Phillips said. “And by the way, we don’t even have any guidelines yet. Probably it will be something that will go down the line, like code.”

Other concepts likely to emerge, he added, are larger waiting areas and lobby spaces, wider hallways and taller ceilings, all to allow for social distancing. All of these are common in buildings with public spaces such as schools, hospitals, government facilities and others.

Perepelitza predicts a greater emphasis will be placed on outdoor public spaces. For indoor spaces, air flow improvements will be sought with dedicated outdoor air ventilation systems that separate heating and cooling from ventilation.

“Natural ventilation is a great solution for smaller buildings; it works really well,” he said. “But for larger buildings with more people and larger systems there are still good strategies, but it takes more energy to do that. Obviously we’re going to push the balance a little more toward health for a while, but there are efficient ways to do that.”

Krause also envisions wider use of artificial intelligence to control the number of people using spaces, as well as other technology to complement design.

“AI-based solutions are just going to proliferate,” he said. “Those things are being tested and a lot of people may or may not be comfortable with them. But if you’re not comfortable interacting with people because of exposure it looks pretty appealing.”

As the situation evolves, a mixture of the aforementioned solutions – as well as others not yet conceived – is likely to emerge.

“It’s about finding the right balance,” Krause said. “Part of what we’ve got to do is move from the tactical, immediate response and think about how we take these things and move them in a cost-effective way. You can’t put the retailer out of business with the costs, but they can’t ignore it either.”

Perepelitza agreed and said communication, as always, is critical. Also, greater professional collaboration will be needed, he said.

“We need to shift focus and priorities and use research that’s been done on air quality and health,” he said. “So, I think that using that and sharing that with clients and user groups, that’s when we will start seeing that shift.”

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